Long relegated to counseling and therapy, the clergy sex abuse crisis is now a matter for federal authorities
By Ivey Dejesus
October 20, 2018
The Catholic Church has historically responded to the crisis of the sexual abuse of children by priests as a pastoral challenge.
Victim after victim has been offered counseling and therapeutic services. Priests too were sent off to counseling and, in time, returned to ministry.
To this day, hundreds of victims have letters from bishops expressing regrets over the moral failings of priests. Indeed, few clerics or church officials in the U.S. Catholic Church have met with adjudication or criminal convictions.
Much has changed.
Ever since the Boston Globe in 2002 catapulted the clergy sex abuse crisis on to the national arena, the transgressions and failures of the Catholic Church have garnered growing global awareness.
Now as the latest chapter unfolds in Pennsylvania, the church no longer is able to slide by with commitments to counsel wounded victims, pay for their therapy and compensate them with a financial settlement.
The Pennsylvania Senate this week failed to advance the latest effort to reform the state's child sex crimes laws, a development that many interpreted as a powerful church, once again, getting off the hook.
Following the fourth major investigation into the church in the state, the failure to change state law provided yet another disappointment to the victims' community.
But the legislative failure seems a footnote amid the latest news that the U.S. Department of Justice has launched its own investigation into the church and its role in potential federal crimes against minors. Catholic dioceses across Pennsylvania, including the Diocese of Harrisburg, have received subpoenas.
The federal probe confirms that the long-festering clergy sex abuse scandal, which has generated few convictions of guilty church clerics or officials and left untold victims despondent in helplessness and devastated lives, is now under a greater scrutiny and weight of the law.
"The American church is at the forefront of that shift," said Stephen White, a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "That shift is done better here than anywhere else."
Indeed, the horrors of legions of boys and girls being raped by priests in churches, schools and rectories have been documented across scores of dioceses across the country.
But the vast majority - as is the case documented by the latest grand jury report in Pennsylvania - happened years ago. Few of them are recent.
"That suggests that the first step in recognizing the problem, that first, step has been taken," White said.
The ongoing lack of accountability on the part of the church, however, has morphed into outrage. And not just here.
The Buffalo, New York, Diocese acknowledged late Thursday that a federal inquiry has been under way there since June, when it turned over documents to investigators.
In Chile, police have raided offices and seized church documents as more than 100 Catholic clergy are investigated amid allegations of child sex crimes and the concealment of crimes. Pope Francis has stripped two bishops of their duties; 34 bishops in total have offered their resignations.
In Australia, Ireland and elsewhere, federal governments have launched inquiries and arrested priests and bishops.
"Without losing sight of the importance of victims, there is in the summer's round of crisis a different tone in outrage from the average Catholic," White said. "The anger is directed more at bishops."
Here in the U.S., the clergy sex abuse crisis, White says, has become a crisis of confidence in the leadership of church.
"This summer focused mostly, not on the abuser priests..most of them are dead... but much more on bishops," White said.
Pope Francis last week accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, who came under vigorous scrutiny in the wake of this summer's grand jury report.
Prior to being named archbishop of Washington, Wuerl served as bishop in Pittsburgh from 1988 until 2006. The grand jury report cast Wuerl as inadequate, irresponsible and a complicit player in the abuse of children in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
In a letter to the 77-year-old cardinal, Pope Francis said: "You have sufficient elements to 'justify' your actions and distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes. However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you."
Bishops up to now may have endeavored to protect their reputations, but that is proving to be an anemic defense in the face of a growing crisis of confidence in church leadership.
"The crisis now has morphed from a crisis of abuse into a related crisis - one built on that - but now a crisis of confidence in leadership," White said.
The church in recent years has seen its membership numbers decline amid the ongoing crisis. But even devout and steadfast Catholics are grappling with a crisis in confidence in their spiritual leaders.
"The priests who commit these crimes are criminals and sick, but the bishops who moved them around committed the bigger crime by exposing more and more children to abuse," said Mary Pat Fox, president of Voice of the Faithful, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group for Catholics. "They must be held accountable. The actions of the hierarchy not only caused additional harm to children, but also cast shadows on good priests doing good work and on Catholics everywhere."
Fox said few Catholics have confidence that the church can police itself.
"Instead we must rely on civil authorities to accomplish what the church should have done decades, if not centuries, ago: act first to protect the faithful rather than to hide their crimes," she said.
The history of the Roman Catholic Church is varied and diverse from country to country. In some countries the distinction of church and state is itself a novel thing, White explained.
The federal government's intervention into Pennsylvania's clergy sex abuse scandal comes on the heels of a statewide investigation by the Office of Attorney General. It bears evidence that state policing powers - and not simply the might of state or local authorities - are need to investigate the church's abuse of children or its mishandling of abusive clerics is a novel thing indeed.
"I think the festering nature of this crisis has just sapped people's willingness to say, 'The church is going to have to deal with this on its own,'" White said.
He is not at all surprised that the federal government is now investigating the dioceses across Pennsylvania.
"Likely we will see more of this," he said.